Philip Larkin's “Here”
Introduction and Text of “Here”
Philip Larkin's “Here” consists of four movements, each an eight-line versagraph. Each versagraph has a virtually undetectable rime scheme. The unobservant reader is likely to overlook the scheme entirely. Each versagraph roughly follows the rime scheme, ABABCDDC, with variations.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows
And traffic all night north; swerving through fields
Too thin and thistled to be called meadows,
And now and then a harsh-named halt, that shields
Workmen at dawn; swerving to solitude
Of skies and scarecrows, haystacks, hares and pheasants,
And the widening river’s slow presence,
The piled gold clouds, the shining gull-marked mud,
Gathers to the surprise of a large town:
. . .
To rest the entire of the poem, please visit “Here.”
Reading of "Here"
One cannot read this poem without feeling a certain spell of malaise, like walking through a molasses fog, or leaning into a bucket of ice.
First Movement: Driving, While Observing
While driving in an automobile, the speaker makes observations, such as "Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows." He uses the word "swerving" ambiguously. Upon first encounter, a reader might sense that an automobile is doing the swerving. The next line further supports that notion, ”And traffic all night north." As the use of the word, “swerving," becomes obsessive, the reader will begin to suspect that more than a car is doing that “swerving,” as the scene move past those fields with brush so limp and skinny that the speaker deems the fields less than meadows.
Soon, it is becoming likely that it is the speaker's mind doing the swerving, more so than the vehicle which he is seemingly driving, or perhaps in which he remains a passenger. So much swerving continues; there is “swerving” heading to the aloneness of observing the sky or scarecrows, or small rabbits and birds or haystacks. Even then as the river widens, the speaker is accosted by a slowness that nevertheless makes him remark, searching for the appropriate images of gold-piled clouds and “shining gull-marked mud.” He sounds, at times, as if he were practicing a lesson in observation and naming with colorful images, all without a distinct purpose, just practice for practice’s sake.
Second Movement: Surprised by a Town
The second movement continues from the last line of the first movement with its clouds gold-piled and that shining mud marked by gulls. The entirety of the that "swerving" eventually "gathers" the speaker to a large town. His "swerving" from industrial shadows through fields to skies and scarecrows, haystacks, the river, the clouds, and the gull-marked mud all pack him off in mind and body to a location, wherein he is surprised to find a large town at the end of all that swerving.
The speaker then details what he sees in the "large town": domes, statues, spires, cranes, streets scattered with grain, water that is crowded with barges. He observes the urban residents and describes, by what can only be speculation, how they came to be there: they were brought here by “flat-faced trolleys” crossing the many miles of straight road. He then utters a mind-bending phrase placing their location as they were pushed “through plate-glass swing doors to their desires.” He thinks he understands why folks would come “here,” and he decides to remain somewhat condescending about their purpose. He then runs a Whitmanesque catalogue of other items to bolster his condescension, which is turning nasty, as it continues to remain vague to hide that nasty truth: “Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies, / Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers.”
Third Movement: Home of Wilberforce
The third movement finds the speaker continuing his speculation about the city dwellers. They are a “cut-price crowd” that is simple even though quite citified. They live in places where only their relatives come for visits or perhaps a salesman shows up from time to time—an unobtrusive qualification as any, seeing that most residential areas remain within the same frame of reference and realm for visitors. Then again, he runs a Whitman-like catalogue of what he sees: “Pastoral of ships up streets, the slave museum, / Tattoo-shops, consulates, grim head-scarfed wives.”
The speaker is dramatizing the town of Hull, located northeast in England, which was the home of William Wilberforce. The famous abolitionist, appears in the catalogue as "the slave museum.” Wilberforce was instrumental in bringing about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. That institution’s abolition in the USA began in 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and was finally achieved only after a bloody Civil War with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution.
Fourth Movement: Defining Loneliness
The main theme in Philip Larkin's "Here" is loneliness. Indeed, the speaker offers a virtual definition of loneliness in his description of "mortgaged half-built edges," "Isolate villages," where "silence stands, / Like heat." All accumulate to burst into a shower of feelings that unmistakably reveals the notion that ”Loneliness clarifies." This vague speaker's thinly veiled desire crafts a vision of loneliness that supports his inner poverty. Such poverty surely springs from the lack of faith in anything human or divine.
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© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes